Traditionally, on every family’s dining table come iftar time there would be a small offering of fuul, the most dependable and over-consumed of Egyptian staples. In my family, fuul — or what is known as broad beans in English though it’s never used — is now mainly offered for sohour. My mother’s reasoning is that fuul must be respected, enjoyed and appreciated on its own.
There’s something ceremonial about fuul. My mother taught me that you stew it at home, eat it with generous amounts of olive oil, salt and lemon and never ever buy cold sandwiches from fuul shops. Mother didn’t tell me fuul shops were worth exploring, that there were plenty of options, that there was more than one way to dress your fuul.
I’ve discovered that fuul from falafel shops are a completely different matter — a different genre that also should be respected and appreciated in the right mood and setting. During Ramadan, falafel shops and fuul carts on the road become a convenient sohour option for prince and pauper alike, and perhaps, it is the only equalizer in Egypt as people from all economic backgrounds buy sandwiches from the same food cart.
In my pursuit of a really good fuul meal, I was told to try El-Mahrous in Garden City, a cart that has over the years become so good, a considerable part of Garden City gets blocked every night as people try to park their cars in the area.
On Dr. Mahmoud Fawzy Street, a short street wedged between buildings boasting the names of their architects and dates of construction, and hedges that are rioting green in the morning, is the kitschiest of sidewalk restaurants. It’s strange to see garish plastic chairs and neon lights next to these old regal buildings, but in a way it fits into Cairo’s ongoing narrative of contradictions.
The options are strictly limited to fuul or eggs at El Mahrous. You can order your fuul with sunflower oil, flaxseed oil, or Alexandrian style: with salad greens minced really small, in addition to green chili peppers. The waiter attending reeled off a bunch of options but that is all I managed to understand.
Another foodie friend had brought me to El Mahrous, his regular feeding point at all hours of the day throughout the year. Whereas he chose Alexandrian-style fuul, I opted for a plain one with flaxseed oil, an option unheard of and unavailable in my household.
The fuul came down in metal bowls, along with aged cheese, salad, lemons, salt, potato chips, bread and pickled eggplant.
After all this exploring and all the effort made to find good fuul, I was slightly disappointed. Yes the fuul was good; the bean had been tenderized during cooking. The fuul came down adequately pureed but I had to add salt and lemon to flavor it to make me mildly happy. And what of the flaxseed oil? The taste was strange, like linen, if coarse linen had a taste. Flaxseed oil has many health benefits so I’m told and this fuul did taste wholesome and healthy but it wasn’t delicious.
I tried a forkful of the Alexandrian-style fuul which was more delicious: spicy, chunky and full of texture; foul as it should be served. The eggplant was dismissed, the aged cheese a little too aged for my liking, and the potato chips were cold and lost their crispness but the whole experience was fun if only for the sake of tradition: eating fuul with friends from a street cart during the late hours of the night in Ramadan.
What did this meal cost us? LE 25, not even the price of a starter in a regular restaurant.
El Mahrous is located in Dr. Mahmoud Fawzy Street, Garden City. El Mahrous is open 24 hours a day during the year. Opting for an early sohour is best to avoid the crowds.